Royal Liverpool is hosting the British Open, which starts on Thursday, for the third time in 20 years. And the biggest deciding factor in how the course plays and who wins may be the one thing the R&A, Britain’s governing body for golf, has no control over: the weather.
When Tiger Woods won here in 2006, the course was tight and hot, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees. Woods kept his booming driver in nearly every tee box, opting to hit the irons in most holes to control his ball’s flight and play the roll on the rough fairways.
Eight years later, Rory McIlroy played on the same course, which dates back to 1869, under very different conditions. It was wet and lush. Temperatures were in the high 70s and a severe thunderstorm hit after the third round.
While both players have low scores – 18 under Woods and 17 under McIlroy – and have beaten their nearest competitor by two strokes, that variability is how the R&A likes it these days.
“It wasn’t easy,” McIlroy said in a post-round interview at the time. “Some guys were running after me so I had to stay focused and do the work.”
Going into this week, the R&A said it had a series of plans that would match the weather forecast to test golfers. Where the tees and pegs are placed will be determined less by the length of a hole on the scorecard or the slope of the green and more by conditions that the governing body cannot plan for in advance: wind, rain, heat and the cold.
“It’s fair to say that we’re very much in the hands of the weather,” said Grant Moir, executive director of governance for the R&A, which leads course configuration at the Open. “A few months ago there was a drought and the field was very dry and burned. We thought we were going to a tough and fast Open, which was fantastic.
“But the last few weeks we’ve had a significant amount of rain, and the course has become greener. So our fairways and greens are softer and certainly softer than St. Louis. Andrews last year,” he said of the 2022 Open. “We just accept it. We will adapt the way we set up the course to the conditions we have and the climate we have.”
That’s what an Open has come to mean, where any preparation the players have made may be for naught given the chance that conditions will change.
Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, a two-time Open champion, said he was bracing himself for tough and tough conditions but knew that could change by the first round.
“It’s not a course where it matters so much what you do to know the course ahead of time,” he said. “I will only play two nines in practice. You know what you’re doing. At Royal Liverpool, you can be aggressive, but it’s your decision-making in the wind that matters.”
The Open setup is regularly compared to the United States Open. This year’s competition at the Los Angeles Country Club had lower scores than the United States Golf Association, the governing body of the United States, generally allows with its setting. On day one, two players broke the championship record, with Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele hitting 62.
Critics said it was too easy, with a winning score of 10-under-par. But Harrington came to the course’s defence. It wasn’t the wide fairways that made the scoring conditions so favourable. It was the green ones.
“We’ve never put greens this good at the US Open,” he said. “They never got crunchy. Normally the greens on a Sunday in that major, the ball doesn’t stop. I haven’t three putts all week.
Stewart Hagestad, a member of the Los Angeles Country Club and a two-time US Middle Amateur Champion who has qualified for the US Open in the past, said before the tournament that conditions in Los Angeles were almost too good for a major. “What makes the championship important is the weather,” he said.
This week at Royal Liverpool, the weather forecast is mixed, but Moir says it’s fine. “We’re looking to provide an appropriate challenge,” he said. “We have to recognize the forecast and adapt from there and go with the best information we have.”
It wasn’t always like this. One of the defining moments for R&A was the 1999 Open in Carnoustie, Scotland, which earned the nickname Car-nasty, due to the hardness of the course. That week was remarkably brutal.
Jean Van de Velde of France was in the lead after 71 holes. With one hole to go, the championship looked to be his. He had a three-stroke lead over two players when he hit an errant shot on the final hole.
It only got worse, into a nightmare ending that was more like an amateur would play than an elite player. His ball found rough terrain, water, a bunker and even a grandstand. When it was over, he hit a triple bogey, which put him in a tie for the championship and sent him into a three-way playoff.
In the four-hole match, Van de Velde lost to Paul Lawrie of Scotland. The winning score was 6 over par.
However, the criticisms ran deeper than just Van de Velde’s performance. The rough was so high and the fairways so tight, the game was both brutally challenging and incredibly slow.
Harrington, who shot 15-over-par that year to finish at No. 29, said open-field settings since then haven’t been as fixated on what the winning score would be.
“In 1999, the R&A brutalized the players and did everything they could to make it difficult,” he said. “After that, the R&A said we have great golf courses. We’ll let time determine if it’s hard or easy. They won’t get in the way.”
Moir did not disagree with this assessment. “There were a lot of lessons learned from Carnoustie in 1999,” he said. “The biggest change was that R&A took more control over the setup. We’re talking 24 years ago – the attention wasn’t that big back then. That was in a different era.”
The biggest change at Royal Liverpool since its last Open was the creation of a new par 3 and its placement on the 17th hole. It was the 15th hole and used to be played downhill to the water; now the shot has been reversed, so players will have to hit a short shot up a hill to a green table fully exposed to the elements.
“If we have any kind of wind, it’s going to impact that hole,” Moir said. “It is a green exposed at the top of the dune, with the beach as a backdrop. Any wind will be at its peak up there.
It is also an example of how the prevailing wind direction on a given day will determine where the pin is. The R&A has plans for all four days to pick a location where players will have to ride the breeze, not just ride in the direction it’s blowing, to get a close-up shot.
“The two modern Opens here are great examples of the impact that weather can have,” said Moir. “But what this course will do is provide chances to score. There is an opportunity to do bigger numbers as well.”